The Perfect Spot For Weetsie

THE REAL DIRT

March 19, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Our cat died recently, the oldest member of our pet menagerie. Weetsie was nearly 20 when she passed away in my wife's arms. Two days before Valentine's Day, her heart stopped.

Death was not unexpected. Few cats reach age 20. Weetsie outlived two other cats and three dogs that came into our home after she, plus a half-dozen trees that she'd used as scratching posts.

We buried her in the back yard, of course. The whole gang is out there. Every pet has its plot beneath the crab apple tree, which seems to have flourished despite (or because of) the activity beneath its branches.

The circle of headstones -- flat rocks dug from the garden -- surround the tree like spokes on a wheel. In fact, we've planted so many critters there that when we went to bury Weetsie, we XTC found the cemetery full, save for a pie-shaped sliver of ground on the tree's north side.

Briefly, I considered squeezing her in there beside Fish, a 79-cent guppy who went belly-up in a record three days, and Timmy, an ornery stray cat who adopted us years ago and with whom Weetsie grudgingly shared much of her life. But my wife protested.

"Weetsie wouldn't like it there, alongside Timmy," she said. "It's bad enough that she had to put up with him for 15 years."

We tramped around the yard in search of a fitting gravesite -- no small task on snow-covered ground. When we reached the herb garden, my wife pointed to a scruffy-looking plant in a corner of the bed.

"There," said Meg. "Weetsie wants to be buried beside that plant."

Of course. The plant was catnip. What better spot for one's favorite feline?

Weetsie loved catnip. The fuzzy leaves contain volatile oils which, when released, attract cats and make them act goofy. They chew the leaves, chase their own tails, stagger around in a stupor and generally act in a disorderly and un-catlike manner. Egad, they're fun to watch!

If only they wouldn't love catnip to death, rolling over the plant, back and forth, until there's nothing left. This hardy perennial can tolerate drought, poor soil and temperatures of minus-40 degrees, but it's no match for a couple of frolicking cats.

Catnip, a member of the mint family, has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, for more than the stuffing of pet toys. The Romans grew it for both culinary and medicinal purposes. They put the serrated leaves in salads, and concocted a catnip tea to cure colds, headaches and stomach ailments.

Catnip was a mainstay in 18th-century herb gardens. The English made a poultice of the leaves to treat bruises. They used catnip in the kitchen to flavor meat dishes. And they, too, brewed a mean pot of catnip tea, extolling its mild sedative powers.

Catnip was also grown in the vegetable garden to control certain pests. (It keeps flea beetles off eggplants, and aphids off cabbages.)

To the English, raising catnip was serious business. How did they fend off neighborhood cats? By surrounding their herb beds with thorny hedges, or by hiding the catnip plants behind taller shrubs.

Critters aside, catnip is easy to grow, in sun or partial shade, and in any type of soil. Like all mints, the plants spread quickly by way of underground stems and should be divided every few years.

Though considered a weed by many, catnip is not a homely plant. The gray-green leaves are covered with a fine down and are almost woolly in appearance; flower spikes produce tiny white and lavender blossoms, prized by bees, in summer.

Harvest the leaves (for tea or cat toys) just before the plant blooms, when catnip foliage is most aromatic. Dry leaves in a cool, well-ventilated room before crumbling and storing them in sealed containers.

Trimming plants to half their size after flowering may prompt catnip to bloom again in early fall. Mulch plants in winter and prune them severely in early spring, to within several inches of the ground. This promotes bushy, robust-looking plants -- the better to withstand cat capers.

We buried Weetsie beside the catnip, the plant she loved most. Toward the end, she just sauntered over and laid in the catnip, a blissful look on her whiskered puss.

She was in heaven then, as now.

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